New adventures in analogue: Picking up and shooting with a film camera

It all started a couple of months ago when I got a direct message on Instagram from a photographer saying she liked my photos.

I was flattered, and as we chatted I checked out more of her profile. I discovered she had another account for posting pictures taken on film. For the last couple of years, I’d been attending Zoom meetings with Melbourne Photographic Society, and I’d often thought about what it would be like to shoot on film or what film SLRs would be like. I’ve only in the last couple of years got to grips with using my Canon mirrorless, so I thought film would be quite a challenge.

I commented in the Instagram chat that I would have no idea where to even get film from if I tried it, and she gave me a link to an account for a photo lab. Interestingly, on their Instagram page they had a Canon 30E for sale. I had thought film cameras would cost quite a bit, being rare these days. I thought they must be three figures, at least. But this one was only £30, and it had a lens. I was immediately intrigued.

Finding a film camera

I did some googling around and learned a little about the Canon 30E and 50E models. A few days later, I popped into a charity shop in the town where I now live, and there were two old film point and shoots and Sigma zoom lens on one shelf. At that moment, I knew that if I could find a film camera for a few quid, I’d go for it.

I didn’t search too hard. I kept popping back to the charity shop but nothing new came in, and the Sigma lens was still on sale after a few weeks. I couldn’t even work out what model it was or which camera mount it fitted. I looked at eBay, and I found a 30E being sold with a lens and bag, so I bid on it. I didn’t expect to win, but after five days I was still the top bidder. When it got to the last few minutes, I kept refreshing the page and I was still the top bidder. Even at 60 seconds, I hadn’t been outbid. I kept refreshing the page every ten seconds. At 15 seconds to go, I was still on top. This was it, I thought. A film camera for £20. Awesome.

At five seconds to go, I was outbid. There was not enough time to find the option to type in a new bid, so that was that.

I put thoughts of getting a film camera aside for a while. I changed my work situation in the autum, leaving my full-time position and going semi-freelance, balancing a part-time job with freelance work in evenings at weekends. And there was also a trip to Lisbon to plan and hundreds of photos to sort through.

Come mid-December, I’m bidding again. This time on an EOS 500 with two lenses for £30, and a 50E with a lens for £27. I was outbid on both, once again. I was getting a little annoyed with eBay now. I would have liked to just find a place you could buy something for a price and have it delivered.

An unexpected find

One Thursday, I find myself heading to Witney, a market town about eight miles from where I live. My freelance jobs are over until the new year, so I’ve some time on my hands. I’m mainly here because the parking is free and I want some Christmas treats from M&S. I have a walk around the town, and I’m thinking I’ll have a look in the window of T4 Cameras. I haven’t been in their shop, but I did order my EF-M 2.8 Macro lens from them during the January lockdown. I know from their website that they sell used gear, but there’s no mention of film anywhere.

I get to the shop and there are two 50Es in the window, both with lenses. I go inside and ask about them. The price tags are not visible, so I go inside and ask. One of them is £50 and has the Canon 24-70mm lens, which the ma in the shop tells me is probably worth £50 alone. He’s selling the gear for charity, and is just happy to see them get used and re-homed. He puts the batteries in and walks me through the controls.

Remembering the eBay hassles, I decide to take it. I get three rolls of film as well, and the batteries, and I also get a UV filter. I have no idea what I’m going to do with a film camera, other than that fact I’m quite interested in learning how to take photos on a film camera.

Reacquainting myself with film

The last time I can remember shooting a roll of film is 2002. That’s the year I graduated from university, and I know for sure that I took all the pictures from my graduation ball on a film camera. I had one of those cameras that could print three pictures on one print – you had a regular 6×4 image and two smaller ones, the idea being you could share the smaller ones with friends or put on in your wallet. I think it was a Kodak, but I can’t remember now what the model was called. I think I may have taken some photos in 2003, but I never had the films developed. I’m sure that there would be a picture of my first car on that undeveloped film, which was a cherry red Peugeot nicknamed Pauline. But with nothing else of much interest being on the film, I never bothered to get it developed.

Opening the roll of Kodak Gold 200 and pulling out the film leader brings back so many memories, but it also brings disbelief that so many years have passed. I get the film inserted, and I am relieved that I’ve managed to load it correctly. What surprises me is that you don’t have to do that much with the camera. Throughout the journey of learning more about photography, I’ve always thought that film must have been so technical and so much harder to learn. It was hard enough for me to learn about exposure and aperture on a digital camera, but it must have been a lot harder with film cameras. I have visions of everything being manual and technical, from the aperture and exposure to shutter speed and focus.

So I’m somewhat surprised, then, that there’s an ‘automatic’ mode, of sorts, much as there is with a digital camera. I just look through the viewfinder and compose the shot and hit the shutter and then the image in the viewfinder focuses itself and the shot is taken. I think back to my teenage years and early adulthood and it makes sense, because I have no memories whatsoever of having to focus an image on a film camera.

Shots fired

Film loaded, ‘auto’ mode sorted, I’m ready to go and shoot. I’m fortunate enough to live practically next door to Blenheim Palace, and most days I’m in the grounds taking my daily walk. Since it’s December, the palace has its annual illuminated light trail and Christmas market going on, so it’s an ideal chance to get out with the 50E and take some shots.

It’s grey when I set out around 2.30 pm, but that’s fine with me, because it means in an hour or so the lights will be more visible. I live about 100 steps from the main gate to the palace, and there’s a big sign outside the gates saying ‘Welcome to Christmas at Blenheim’, so I decide this is to be my first shot. There’s a satisfying mechanical clunk as the shutter fires and the film winds on. I’ve never had an SLR before, so it’s a completely new sensation. Another observation is the weight and heft of the camera compared with my mirrorless ESO M6 and M100. It feels heavy to walk with immediately. (I did get given a strap by the man in T4, but I couldn’t work out how to fix it on.)

I’m walking around the edge of the estate on my way to the walled gardens. In a field are some sheep, and they’re very close to the fence near the path. I find sheep interesting because of the textures in their fleeces, but they are very jittery and they trot away as I approach the fence. Of course, with film, you have to think more carefully about what shots you want to take and how many, since you have a finite number of exposures on the film. With my digital cameras, I would take a few shots of anything I’m interested in, each with slightly different angles and focal lengths. Sometimes I take shots know that the composition is imperfect, but knowing that I can crop or remove items in the foreground. I don’t get this chance with film, though, and now it hits me. I take my time with the shot, trying portrait compositions and landscape compositions and questioning whether I really want this shot, before finally committing and hitting the shutter.

Now the shutterbug has bitten me and I’m enjoying shooting with film already, even though I have no idea whether any of the images will turn out to be any good. I start to fire more shots – bare tree branches hanging down against the sky; a jagged line of greenhouse roofs; illuminated light trail installations. I realise just how quickly I’ve got used to stopping myself from firing off shots of any- and everything like I would with my digital cameras. I’m a lot more mindful of the composition.

What I’ve learned from shooting film

I’m about half way through the roll of film as I get to the palace. I suddenly realise that I’m not going to be able to see these shots for a long time. With digital, as soon as I get home I import the images to my iPad and start to go through them, flagging the ones that I want to work. With film, there’s the extra steps, and not to mention expense, of getting the film developed. I’ve no idea where I can even go to get these images printed. I google it quickly. Have I got to go into Oxford and get them done at Snappy Snaps every time?

I continue round the back of the palace. By this point, I’m being corralled out of the gardens by the staff, as it’s getting close to the start of the light trails, and I haven’t paid £25 for the privilege. I skip past the water terraces, stopping by the sphinx statues of the 9th duchess of Marlborough, Gladys Deacon (no relation), whose biography I’ve not long ago finished reading.

Then I’m out into the great courtyard, where the Christmas market and funfair is being held. I’m up to 25 shots now, so there’s 11 left. I’m starting to want to get the roll finished so I get the ball rolling on getting them developed. I realise how spoiled I’ve been by being able to check the images on the digital camera screen and get instant gratification by being able to work on them immediately. While I want to finish the film, I don’t want to take shots just for the sake of it. I try a couple with the merry-go-round in action, and a couple of the Christmas trees in the quad, and then I decide to save the last few for the lights in town.

When I get home, I’ve got 35 shots on the 36-exposure film, so there’s one left. I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I could just fire it off, or I could back outside and use it. I decide to do some knob-twiddling and get familiar with the controls, since all I’ve done it use the ‘auto’ mode. Next time I go and shoot, I need to try the manual and TV modes, for sure. As I’m learning how the system works, I decide to go out and get my last shot. I head back to the Christmas tree outside the town hall and get a 10-second shot, hoping to get the lights captured well when the images come back.

Getting the film processed

Of course, now I have to figure out how to get the images processed. Unlike digital, I can’t just download the images from my card and start going through them straight away. I’ve had a couple of messages from the photographer who got me thinking about film, as I’d posted an Instagram Story about the 50E, and she has recommended a place.

The last time I had a film processed, I would drop it into the chemist in the village I grew up in and then it would be sent away and I’d pick up the photos a couple of days later. I figure it must be a similar system, but just done through the post. I’ve been thinking also about how to digitise the images.

I’ve looked around on Exposure Film Lab’s website, and I’m surprised that I don’t have to even have the images printed at all. (I haven’t actually printed a photo since 2006…) I can just have them scanned and sent to me via email link. I can, of course, have the prints, but I decide to just go for the scans for now, to see how they turn out first. The lab will store the negatives for me anyway, so I have the chance to get them back at some point. If I want them now, I can pay £2.50 for postage and packing, but I decide against it.

I rewind the film and pop it into the post the next day. The lab will be closed over Christmas, so if I can get the images to them before Monday, I will get the scans back before Christmas. Hopefully, Royal Mail will get them in on time. Now the waiting begins… will the images turn out OK? I’m excited to find out.